Treatment of Chinese workers brings union disputes and calls for public inquiry

Representatives from some of Alberta's construction unions say the case of Chinese temporary foreign workers having their paycheques siphoned by their employer reveals huge flaws with the federal government program that need to be addressed by a public enquiry.

Two temporary foreign workers were killed and four others injured in April 2007, when the roof of the massive storage tank they were building collapsed at the Horizon oilsands project north of Fort McMurray.

After talking to the dead men's widows, the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) uncovered serious issues relating to the payments received by the temporary foreign workers on the project.

"We went to great lengths to make sure there was a Canadian bank account for all of these workers," said Wayne Prins, CLAC representative.

"We did continual checks that the payroll was processed and the correct amount of money was deposited in the accounts.

"We monitored the situation closely and spoke to people to confirm this was happening. We had every indication it was happening."

CLAC found out after the deaths that the Chinese workers on the project were not receiving their full salaries.

"We had concerns that they did not have access to their full accounts," said Prins.

"The employer had access to their accounts and what was being collected was less than what was being paid."

A story in the Edmonton Journal last week reported that the widows of the dead men said the wages their husbands were making were about 12 per cent of what they should have been paid.

One welder's widow said he made about $600 per month.

"We have not been able to confirm what was actually being collected by the craft workers on this project," said Prins."

CLAC is continuing its efforts to see what has happened to these personal accounts."

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL) runs the construction site at the Horizon oilsands project.

According to Prins, CNRL hired Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company (SSEC) to build the storage tanks. SSEC is the Canadian arm of Sinopec, which is a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

SSEC had signing authority on all of the workers' bank accounts.

The correct amount was paid into each employee's Bank of Montreal account, but disappeared before it reached families in China.

In the case of a welder, the regular pay should have been about $8,000 to $10,000 a month.

The Alberta Federation of Labour said that CNRL and CLAC made huge mistakes in their rush to bring the Chinese workers into Alberta.

"The first mistake was allowing the Chinese government to have direct access to these workers. CNRL had a responsibility to make sure they weren't exploited," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"And, CLAC failed in its responsibility to these workers. No mainstream union would have permitted an arrangement like allowing an employer to have signing authority on worker bank accounts," he said.

The CLAC argues the AFL comments are not surprising given the fact that the two unions are competing for members.

"It is not surprising that Gil McGowan and other unions respond in this way, because they are in competition with us and we have a different approach to labour relations," said Prins.

Daily Commerce News and Construction Record, Fri July 4 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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